More and more evidence accumulates demonstrating a rise in childhood obesity and its attendant ills. While there is no doubt that the health of children has deteriorated due to overweight-related maladies, might there be a downside to the phenomenal media attention paid to this issue?
In the age of “Supersize Me,” we are obviously in the midst of an obesity crisis. It is estimated that more than 25% of children over the age of 6 are technically obese, and that this number has doubled in the past thirty years. The media has not ignored the message; one cannot open a newspaper or news magazine without noting an article on the overweight epidemic in this country.
Medical journals have done their fair share as well. In fact, the most recent issue of Pediatrics (Volume 116, No. 2, August 2005) contains not one, but two articles detailing the connection between obesity and metabolic syndrome in children and adolescents (see below). Metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health-impairing factors including sugar regulation abnormalities, lipid irregularities, and elevated blood pressure, is now thought to be more prevalent even in elementary school age children. Just last week, the American Heart Association online journal Circulation published Dr. Michael Weitzman’s important work connecting cigarette smoking and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome in teens. A previously published piece in The Lancet further connects the dots between smoking, overweight and more rapid aging. The New England Journal of Medicine reviewed the subject extensively last year. Certainly we must address fitness and nutrition concerns for our ever-expanding youth. When cup-stacking is a legitimized school phys-ed activity and school lunches are often no healthier than fast food, you know we’re in for a tough battle.
So I hope I’m not minimizing the issue by raising one concern about the massive anti-obesity media blitz. Tucked away in that same Pediatrics issue linked above is a noteworthy article titled, “Exposure to the Mass Media, Body Shape Concerns, and Use of Supplements to Improve Weight and Shape Among Male and Female Adolescents.” Among over 10,000 teens surveyed, almost 5% of boys and 2% of girls used weight-loss/body-shaping supplements including injectable growth hormone and anabolic steroids. Dr. Alison Field and co-authors conclude, “Girls and boys who frequently thought about wanting toned or well-defined muscles were at increased risk for using potentially unhealthful products to enhance their physique. These results suggest that just as girls may resort to unhealthful means to achieve a low body weight, girls and boys may also resort to unhealthful means to achieve other desired physiques.” So much attention is paid to how we look that it is inevitable some will go too far. Paralleling the obesity rise is an increase in eating disorders (as chronicled in the new FX TV series, “Starved“) as well as in the use of illegal and harmful substances thought to improve physical appearances. It is indeed a fine line.
Articles cited from the August issue of Pediatrics (v. 116, no. 2):
1. “Childhood Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus”
2. “Effect of Obesity and High Blood Pressure on Plasma Lipid Levels in Children and Adolescents”